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Highway superintendent says loose leaves won’t be picked up until town comes up with $219K

The agreement that would allow Riverhead Town’s Highway Department to pick up loose leaves left at the curb has hit a snag.

After years of arguing whether loose leaf pickup is a highway department job or a town responsibility, the Town Board and Highway Superintendent Mike Zaleski came to an agreement in October. 

The two sides asked for a legal opinion from the state Attorney General’s office, which in turn, contacted the state Comptroller’s office.

The Comptroller’s office found a 1976 case involving Brookhaven Town that stating: “A town board may direct the highway department to collect on a regular bases leaves and brush placed on a town highway right of way by property owners, with the highway department’s expenses chargeable not to the highway fund, but to the general fund appropriation for refuse collection.”

Thus, the highway department would be able to do the work, but the expense would come from the town general fund, not the highway fund.

The comptroller’s opinion states that the Town Board “shall create general fund budget line(s) for expenses related to loose leaf pickup in the amount of $219,018.88 for the year 2022.”  

And here’s where the snag comes in: Mr. Zaleski maintains that that $219,018.88 will come from the town and will enable the highway department to pick up leaves this year. 

If that money isn’t provided, he said, “I’m not going to do it.”

Town officials say that money comes from the 2022 budget, and Mr. Zaleski’s department already used that money to pick up leaves in January

The two sides were on the town work session agenda Thursday to try to iron out the situation. But Mr. Zaleski refused to attend. 

“I’m not going to any more meetings,” Mr. Zaleski said in an interview. “I’ve been to hundreds of meetings.”

He added, “the town is now trying to circumvent their legal responsibility to pay the highway department the agreed amount as stated by the state Comptrollers’ office.”

Both Mr. Zaleski and Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said their offices have been receiving letters and phone calls from residents asking why their leaves have not been picked up. 

Mr. Zaleski said in a letter to reporters after the meeting that the highway department has worked diligently on coming up with a legal solution to continue picking up loose leaves. 

He said that if the town doesn’t provide the $219,000, there will be no leaf pickup.

Town Board members said the money for leaf pickup will go in the 2023 budget.

“We agreed and Mike agreed to go by the findings from the state Attorney General‘s office,” said Councilman Tim Hubbard. “That finally came out this year in 2022. So we could not have budgeted the $219,000 from last year this year because that money didn’t come out until this year.” He said this money has been budgeted in years past for manpower, equipment and supplies. 

Councilman Ken Rothwell said Mr. Zaleski wasn’t even the highway superintendent until January of this year. 

Mr. Hubbard said, “We’re kind of at an impasse. He’s not going to pick up the leaves if he feels he hasn’t been paid or made whole for this year.”

Town Finance Administrator Bill Rothaar said that Nov. 20, 2021 was the deadline for the 2022 budget to be adopted, but the town didn’t even have a dollar amount for the cost of leaf pickup at that time.

Mr. Rothwell the problem should be fixed once the new year begins.

“If he does it, he gets paid,” he said. “If he doesn’t, he doesn’t get paid.”

Town attorney Erik Howard said Mr. Zaleski “is stuck with the budget that was implemented before he came into office.”

Ms. Aguiar said she’s hoping the issue is resolved soon. 

“Our office is getting a tremendous amount of calls asking about the leaf pickup,” she said. “I understand he’s told people to call the supervisor’s office because he’s not getting paid.” 

“The residents want this service,” she added. “Hopefully, we’ll see him next Thursday.”

The 2023 town budget is not expected to be adopted until Nov. 14, according to Ms. Aguiar. The 2023 town budget includes $221,000 for leaf pickup, although it doesn’t take effect until January.